The Princeton University response to the recent protests by what I take to be a very small number of Afro-American students has been (to me) very disappointing. I cannot be sure, but so far as I can tell, the sit-in group appears to be quite unrepresentative of the campus Afro-American community – so far as I can tell they do not represent the common opinion of Afro-American football players, for instance. And there does not seem to be any widespread general support on campus for the specific demands of the protesters, though how would one know for sure? If I am right about these facts, then I am doubly uncomfortable with the reaction of President Eisgruber to the sit-in. I am dumbfounded that agreements on University policy should be negotiated with a small group of protesters while they were still occupying his office. I thought the best strategy was not to negotiate with hostage-takers.
In general, in my view, President Eisgruber’s reaction has been to over-react to student allegations of emotional harm. “Microaggressions,” as the students term them, are mostly the kinds of grievances that adults realize they have to live with, and deal with in civilized ways. A community dedicated to eliminating such relatively minor harms, and punishing those “guilty” of them, is a repressive society with little capacity to tolerate dissent or encourage risky creativity. There is something about “safe” as a standard that seems to me hostile to the spirit of democracy and liberal education. I think we should be more or less free to do as we like, though liable for the real and tangible harms that we inflict on others, but the bar for what constitutes harm should not be set too low. Randy Kennedy ’77’s op ed in The New York Times Nov. 27 seems to me to express this notion beautifully.
I think we are all weary of the “naming” controversy at this point. Certainly I am. Suffice it to say that I think we should not remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from the School or elsewhere in Princeton University. Many of us have long been aware of Wilson’s defects, which were serious, but have nevertheless admired him for his accomplishments and what they have stood for over the years – both as a politician and as an educator. I took part in a wonderful conference organized here in 2009 by the distinguished historian of this university, Jim Axtell, on “the educational legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in a 2012 book of the same name (for which I wrote the afterword). Although I have long been a public critic of Wilson’s racism, and once did a video on the subject, I came away from the conference convinced that Wilson was the most important of the architects of the modern American system of elite higher education in the early 20th century. And I still feel that way. I am honored to teach in a School that bears his name – and I do not see why that is incompatible with my complete rejection of his racial views.
Princeton and other institutions have plenty to be criticized for, considering our present policies and behaviors. I would feel better about the current protests if they were aimed at current issues, rather than intended to embarrass and shame current students and faculty who disagree. A vibrant civil society needs to encourage dissent of all kinds while maintaining respect for everyone in the society. In order to achieve such a condition, however, the leadership of the society needs to make clear what values and behaviors we should strive for. What we need now is a clear indication of what those values and behaviors are.
Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of the letter published in the Feb. 3, 2016, print edition.